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February/1/2010

Commentary by David P. Miranda

 

 Times Union Commentary

Economy hurts justice for all
 
By DAVID P. MIRANDA
First published: Thursday, January 14, 2010
Critical and already under-funded legal services programs across New York are on the verge of extinction unless necessary minimal funding is provided.
The perfect storm of our troubled economy and reductions in state and federal funding for civil legal assistance leaves our neediest families with nowhere to turn when faced with wrongful eviction, home foreclosure, or in need of help obtaining disability, medical, or unemployment benefits. In these difficult times, when we readily open the federal coffers to provide hundreds of billions of dollars to reckless Wall Street gamblers and short-sighted automakers, we inexplicably draw the line at providing the minimal funding necessary for the most needy and helpless among us.
Those of us in the Capital Region should not be fooled into thinking such legal services programs affect only the large population of indigent people in New York City. Albany County has more than 33,000 people at, or below, the poverty level impacted by drastic cuts to these programs. Rest assured, the money that goes to legal services does not fill the pockets of attorneys. The truth is the opposite.
Attorneys in our state are expected to voluntarily dedicate 40 hours a year or more to pro bono legal service. Each year thousands of New York attorneys donate their time through civil legal service programs. The legal profession is unique in its expectation that each professional donate a portion of their time and expertise to assisting the underprivileged.
Funding for administration of these valuable programs comes from Interest on Lawyer's Trust Accounts. However, the recent lowering of interest rates and our faltering economy has resulted in a dramatic reduction of available IOLA dollars, from $32.5 million in 2008 to only $6.5 million this year. New York's Office of Court Administration has called for the state Legislature to provide $15 million to keep these legal services programs afloat and the Senate is holding hearings on the crisis.
Now, more than ever, government funding is needed so that these programs can remain in place and attorneys can continue their voluntary, but sorely needed, pro bono efforts.
Recently, the local celebration of National Pro Bono Week recognized the efforts of attorneys throughout the year and raised awareness of pro bono programs in our region.
A panel discussion of judges and bar association leaders extolling the virtues of pro bono efforts service was concluded by remarks from a recipient of pro bono legal counsel. She spoke quietly and eloquently about her domestic hardships and feeling of helplessness until she obtained pro bono counsel to assist her in getting the legal protection needed to enable her to live with dignity and peace. Her moving story serves as a reminder that pro bono is not just about programs, or funding, or volunteering, but about people's lives and the ability to live in our society with certain basic human rights.
Failure to provide adequate funding for legal services programs prevents access to justice for the poor of our society.
As stated by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell Jr., "Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building, it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists ... it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status."
When justice is served for the poorest among us we are all served for the better.
In these difficult times we must be ever vigilant in supporting worthy programs that provide needed assistance and access to justice for all New Yorkers.
David P. Miranda is past president of the Albany County Bar Association and a partner in the law firm of Heslin Rothenberg Farley and Mesiti in Albany. His e-mail address is dpm@hrfmlaw.com.
 

 






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